Gordon Meredith Lightfoot, Jr. CC OOnt is a Canadian singer-songwriter who achieved international success in folk, folk-rock, and country music, and has been credited for helping define the folk-pop sound of the 1960s and 1970s. He has been referred to as Canada's greatest songwriter and internationally as a folk-rock legend. Lightfoot's songs, including "For Lovin' Me", "Early Morning Rain", "Steel Rail Blues", "Ribbon of Darkness"—a number one hit on the U.S. country chart with Marty Robbins's cover in 1965— and the 1967 Detroit riot-generated "Black Day In July" brought him international recognition in the 1960s. He experienced chart success in Canada with his own recordings, beginning in 1962 with the #3 hit " I'm the One". Lightfoot's recordings then made an impact on the international music charts as well in the 1970s, with songs such as "If You Could Read My Mind", "Sundown", "Carefree Highway", "Rainy Day People", all reaching #1, and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald". Some of Lightfoot's albums have achieved gold and multi-platinum status internationally.
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My name's Gordon Lightfoot. I'm a singer/songwriter. I'm also a performer. I play a lot of concerts. And I've made 20 albums, 14 for Warner Brothers / Reprise and 5 for United Artists before that, I was doing pretty well there and I got moved over to a bigger label, and my latest album I released last year independently. The songs I would be best known for would be "If You Could Read My Mind," "Sundown," and "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." Plus "Carefree Highway." Many of my songs are really well-known because other people have recorded them, including Peter Paul & Mary, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley, Barbra Streisand, and others. I do a fair amount of charity work here locally where i live, in the city of Toronto. Most of the time I am very low-profile though. I did a lot of stuff earlier on with David Suzuki in the environmental movement years ago, and Sting was also really involved in that. Almost on the other side of the country!
I really enjoy my work a good deal and I have a wonderful band, just a great bunch of guys, it's actually a 5 piece band really, which I lead but of which I am one. We travel all over North America. We have played in Europe, Australia, England, but for the last 20 years or so, I've slowed down a little bit, I like to stay in the North American continent because i feel a lot safer here. Plus it's where all my relatives are, and I can't get away from them! I have a very extended family, I have 6 children and they are spread out all over the place. I've been a busy man.
I'm here with Victoria's help today to take your questions. AMA!
Edit: I am excited. I am really really excited about what we are doing right now. We are doing shows now, and I've been doing shows since I was very young, very small, as a child. And thank you very much - it's been a very interesting time, and it's also given me a chance to explore within myself for answers to your questions and I really appreciate your interest, and I hope you come out and see us - we'll really knock your socks off!
Gord, love you man. Who are your rainy day people?
That one is so easy, it's the family. It's the extended family. They are the rainy day people.
Hello Mr Lightfoot!
I’ve been a lifelong fan of your music, and was very excited to see that you’d be doing an AMA.
Having grown up along one of Northern Ontario’s busiest shipping routes, and within visual distance of Whitefish Point, it was inevitable that my absolute favourite song as a child was The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. I’m pretty sure my parents made me a cassette of that song, and I’d listen to it while watching the Fitz’s sister ships making their way through Lake Superior.
Since then I’ve discovered the rest of your discography.
The songs that personally resonate with me the most were the narratives of contemporary events, like the Fitzgerald, and Black Day in July. I’ve found that music retains the emotions surrounding an event better than almost any other medium, and that a good song will keep people informed and aware of our history longer than a textbook or documentary.
Are there any other events, recent or from history, that you’d like to have written a song about?
Thanks again for doing this AMA, and best of luck with your continued touring!
You know, that's a tough question to answer. It really is. I wish I could give you an answer to that one! Topical songs, you know... are very difficult to come by. Every once in a while. And the Edmund Fitzgerald really seemed to go unnoticed at that time, anything I'd seen in the newspapers or magazines were very short, brief articles, and I felt I would like to expand upon the story of the sinking of the ship itself. And it was quite an undertaking to do that, I went and bought all of the old newspapers, got everything in chronological order, and went ahead and did it because i already had a melody in my mind and it was from an old Irish dirge that I heard when I was about 3 and a half years old. I think it was one of the first pieces of music that registered to me as being a piece of music. That's where the melody comes from, from an old Irish folk song.
That's an interesting one!
Hi Gordon...love your music can you provide insight as to the inspiration for Sundown? Love that song and want to learn more about it.
Well, I had this girlfriend one time, and I was at home working, at my desk, working at my songwriting which I had been doing all week since I was on a roll, and my girlfriend was somewhere drinking, drinking somewhere. So I was hoping that no one else would get their hands on her, because she was pretty good lookin'! And that's how I wrote the song "Sundown," and as a matter of fact, it was written just around Sundown, just as the sun was setting, behind the farm I had rented to use as a place to write the album.
First, thank you for the music. I grew up in the 70s and it seems like your music was always around me. I sort of re-discovered you in my late 30s after a painful divorce and I was looking for music that I felt had meaning. I started playing your music for my son and he loves it. He is especially infatuated with "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald." He is eight and you will be his first concert next month in L.A. We're both looking forward to it immensely.
My question is a simple one, but one that has eaten at me since I was a kid: What exactly would you do to me if you found me creepin' round your back stairs?
Well, I mean, it's sort of self-explanatory, isn't it? I mean, it was that kind of a night - I didn't know what my girlfriend was doing while I was writing a song, and things were already a little bit shaky such as it was, and I could just sort of picture somebody, you know, maybe trying to pick up my girlfriend while she was out at the bar and I was at home working on all these songs, and the sun was going down and it was getting late! And that meant coming into your territory, that's what it means.
How does it feel to hold the status of begin a living legend? To have been praised so highly by behemoths of music like Bob Dylan or Robbie Robertson? To have been covered by such a diverse (and talented) variety of artists from Elvis, to Johnny Cash, to Neil Young, and all the way to Harry Belafonte? Basically how does it feel to be Gordon Lightfoot?
From a big English fan who is agonisingly waiting for you to come back to our fair shores.
Also are there any song of yours that you feel is unfairly forgotten?
Deeply deeply moved and deeply honored, and quite surprised, actually. That's how it feels to me.
And no, no I do not. There is definitely material in my catalogue that will stand review very soon. Yes.
HUGE fan. So excited you're coming to Edmonton soon.
What is your songwriting process? Do you set time aside? Write when inspired? Do you jot down concepts all the time or sit and write from start to finish? Write rough, let sit, then review the process?
There's a lot of the information required to answer that.
Well, I usually start - sometimes I start with finding something that would make a good title. From a newspaper, or a billboard, or maybe on the subway, haha! And then get a melody and some chords, and try to turn the title into a song, make sure to repeat it with regularity.
And that's it- the chords, the words and the melody. If you want to start with a title, you can take a title and turn it into a song if you want to. I did that with my song "Carefree Highway" - I took it from a road sign. It came from seeing a road sign in Arizona.
Do you think you could take Fred Penner in a fair fight?
Fred Penner! oh my! I highly doubt that. He outreaches me by about 4 inches I think. He's a pretty tall guy. He'd outreach me. I wouldn't have a chance against Fred.
Mr. Lightfoot, I just want to say that I am SUCH an admirer of yours. I've been lucky enough to see you in concert in Atlanta twice, and I'm looking forward to doing so again. (My girlfriend wants to hire you to play at our wedding. :) )
Also, I wanted to thank you for unknowingly helping me teach my 11th graders about ballads. I played "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" while they read articles about the real ship, and they loved it. I could hear them humming the song in the hallway after class.
What is your favorite version of another artist's rendition of one of your songs?
This is always a tough one. And it seems like the hardest, it would be the easiest one of all. But it's Elvis. Elvis' version of "Early morning rain." That's one of my songs, and he did a wonderful job on it. Even sang it on the first TV show he did when he got out of the army. It was called "Aloha from Hawaii" that was the name of the TV show. You can google it up, it was the first time it got recorded, so I got a lot of attention on that song. I tried to meet him once, but Elvis had left the building. I never got to meet him, I never did, I almost got to meet him but I never got to meet the guy.
Gordon! Thanks for writing the song "beautiful" which I felt necessary to play at my wedding reception. My question:
Who is your favorite of the trailer park boys, Ricky, Julian, or Bubbles?
I like Bubbles. And I don't know why!
About Carefree Highway, can you share what you meant by the line "I wonder how the old folks are tonight"? I always find that such a transcendental aside.
Well, I always thought about my folks. They're both gone now. But I always thought about my folks, it doesn't matter what kind of trouble i was getting into, I always thought about my folks.
My favourite song of yours is "On Yonge Street". What is your favourite part of Toronto (and Ontario?)
I've recently moved to Toronto from Australia and your music has been an integral part of my education on Canadian culture - thanks Gordon!
Okay! Toronto - I love all of Canada. But I really love Toronto, because it's just a fast moving city, very very fast moving, terrible traffic jams all over the place, millions of people, everybody's walking around the street. Yonge street is the main street in Toronto, and it's part of a highway, if you go all the way out, Yonge Street, it goes for 600 miles, all the way to the border of Ontario & Manitoba - it's the longest highway in the world that becomes a street when it gets to Toronto, which is the biggest city in Canada. So I was watching people with their children one day, I was in my car, and I saw these people looking after their kids and they were trying to cross the road and I was afraid I was going to plow into them at one point, and all of a sudden I got the idea to write that song, "On Yonge Street," In my car. I have ideas for songs when I am driving around in my car, you know? Ideas for songs when I am having a shower. It's funny, the way it goes. I always had to produce, you know? I always had a band, and a family, and I had to come up with the material, so I had to keep thinking about it.
I had a responsibility. So I kept writing. That's what kept me writing. I wanted to be right where i am right now - I'm 75 years of age, and I'm excited about getting back on the road right now! I've been on the road my entire life, but I've been off the road 8 weeks, I just got 8 weeks off, so I'm really excited about getting back. We got off in the middle of June and almost took the summer off - we did some amphitheater dates in the month of July, yea, down in the Northeast, The Wolf Trap and places like that.
Okay, okay! I love the work that we do! We'll come back to Australia sometime.
The first time I went to Australia, it took me about 27 hours to get there, that's the way it was back in those days, the 1970's. Okay, carry on.
I grew up with your music on long car trips from Boston to Toronto. My mom put it on because it would instantly make me and my sisters be quiet. Gord's Gold is still my goto album when I can't fall asleep, and I could listen to Don Quixote or Minstrel of the Dawn all day. I recently asked my four year old cousin what her favourite song was and she sang Canadian Railroad Trilogy and Bitter Green, and it was really cute.
Edit: question: which song did you have the most fun writing?
Thank you for making amazing music!
Oh, by golly, let me think about that for a minute! in a state of mind I was in at the time, I think "Sundown" was probably the most fun to write. While my girlfriend was out at the bars, I was getting worried bout her, I had been writing songs all day, and I figured she should have been home helping me write songs! But it worked out okay, though.
Quick question, where did you get the inspiration for the pony man?
My parents used to sing it to me as a child and has always held a place in my heart.
Another question, my great uncle is Red Shae, how was he as a person? As i didn't know him growing up.
Ah. I was living in a very small apartment, with a new wife and 2 small children, sleeping in the next bedroom when I wrote that song.
Red Shae! Red, he was a wonderful man. Great sense of humor. Wonderful father, great friend, wonderful to his children. Made an album with his son Scott, good album too, I just listened to it a couple days ago. He's long gone, God rest his soul, and he played guitar for me for 7 years, and these were the funniest years of my life, because he had a great sense of humor. And a great friend also, I might add.
Who is your favorite singer from today?
I'd have to think about that one, but I'll tell ya, Bryan Adams right now. He's a fellow Canadian. He's a great singer, great guitar player, and i love his songwriting. He would be among my favorite artists.
Love your music and have been an avid listener for some time.
Quick question: What was the inspiration for your song "Summer side of life?"
Wish I could explain how much your songs have meant at various times of my life. So, first off, thanks!
Q: What do you remember about playing Town Hall in NYC for the first time?
I remember the Paul Butterfield Blues Band really well. They played Town Hall and I was their opening act, it was 1966 or 1965 or thereabouts. Paul Butterfield Blues Band and myself on the same bill, I was the opening act, at Town Hall. Well, I was thrilled to watch Mike Bloomfield playing guitar! I was thrilled with the whole thing. Before that I had played at the Bitter End, I'd only gotten that far, which was a very well known folk club in Greenwich Village. So it was sort of a step up the line for me, to be able to play in Town Hall, it meant i had found a management deal in New York by that point.
I'm afraid that I will not be around to find that out!
Hello Gord. At Mariposa your voice sounded so much stronger than any time I've seen you perform since 2004. Have you upped the ante at the gym, or how do you attribute what seems to be much improved vitality on stage? And, I sent Anne a pic I took of you at Mariposa, a close up, probably the best pic I've taken of anyone, did you see it?
In answer to the question; yes, I do it through physical exercise. And no, what photo is that? Which photo?
Mr. Lightfoot, I think your lyrics are brilliantly written. They're full of metaphor, imagery and literary references and could easily stand alone as lyric poetry. Additionally, the music you set the lyrics to is beautiful. Do you consider yourself more of a lyricist or musician? Or do they both just flow together?
Yes, I gotta reach. I gotta reach deep for this one, i'll tell ya.
What it is is a marriage between the lyric and the melody. It's as close as I can get for you.
Hello Mr. Lightfoot,
I met you at this years Mariposa Folk Festival. I was too starstruck to ask you anything so here goes.
What is your favourite song to play? Who is your favourite artist to watch perform? Thanks
I like to play "If You Can Read my Mind." And Bob Dylan.
What made you think the Edmund Fitzgerald would make a good subject for a song?
Well, I had a melody, and I had some chords. All I had was the melody and the chords and no story. When the story came on television, that the Edmund had foundered in Lake Superior 3 hours earlier, it was right on the CBC here in Canada, I came into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and saw the news and I said "That's my story to go with the melody and the chords."
Hi Gordon. Thanks for coming here and answering our questions. Here are a few for you.
Through all your years of touring and performing what was the best or most memorable experience you've had?
How was it to be part of a death hoax? Did you get any interesting well wishes from people who learned the truth belatedly?
What song(s) written by another musician do you wish you had written?
Last year, I was back to full strength after the illness that i had a few years back, and I had the best band I've ever had, right now. So last year was my best year so far, because i have had this band for 2 and a half years right now, and last year was my best year! Because we were doing what we do really well, we think.
First thing I did was call all my kids! And that's it. Next question.
Ahhhh. Hard Rain's Gonna Fall by Bob Dylan.
Wow, Gord's here! Thanks for taking the time to do this, sir, and thank you for the years of amazing music! I live in central Wisconsin, and I've been making yearly trips to Lake Superior with my friends since I was a teen. "Summertime Dream" is the only album we'll play on the trip. It's literally been the soundtrack of my summers for a decade. Quick question.... not being an American, do you feel there's any region of the United States that is able to relate more to your music?
Well, I look upon the Canadians and the Americans as cousins. So basically we kind of think the same way, the same wavelength. I love my cousins. I have 10 first cousins. And I love every one of them. So I don't think about the border when I am writing my songs, I think about North America. I've been all over the arctic areas too. The best trip I ever went on was to Kazan, from Snowbird Lake up to Baker's Lake, you might know where that is!
Hi Gordon! I live in Barrie and I remembered that you are from Orillia. Do you still visit the area often? Also what would you say is your favourite place to visit in Simcoe County?
Ahhhh. I know!
I like to go up to Beaverton, Ontario. It's a place where one of my old musical muses still lives to these days. We played music together in high school and every once in a while I check in and visit them. Her name is Marg Barnsdale. She actually at one point was responsible for getting my career started very early on, because she introduced me very early on to some people in Toronto who could help me. So I still go up there. It's Beaverton. On Lake Simcoe.
Have you ever been to Kirkland Lake? If so, can you share a quick, memorable tale from your time there?
Thanks for the wonderful music, Sir. You are a treasure. :D
I was in Kirkland Lake about 1978? I was coming off a canoe trip on the Rupert River in Northern Quebec, I was out on a lot of canoe trips, you know? And I went through Kirkland Lake on my way down the Polar Bear special, coming off one of those canoe trips. That was the only time I was ever there.
Your era seemed to be at a time when there was support for Canadian musicians, or an era when an incredible amount of Canadian talent broke through, spilling onto a national market.
What do you think that Canada (government, venues, people in general) can or should be doing to support Canadian musicians, or do you believe the support is there? Do you think your time was special in regards to talent, or was it opportunities combined with the talent?
It's there for them. Because we have a Canadian content law which went into effect around 1973. So all Canadian musicians are getting a fair shake here, those that are creating the kind of product that can be played on the airwaves. And a lot of them are getting accepted by the industry in the United States and elsewhere. So they are certainly not being overlooked at all, I think everybody's got a good shot here. Just write the songs, get the demos made, get a little team together, just the way the rest of us did. Just keep writing those songs!
Can you elaborate on feeling safer in North America? I'm guessing this relates to your past health issues; do you feel that the medical care available in Canada and the US is your best option?
No, I feel safer here because of what i see going on in other parts of the world. Sure we have our problems here, there's always something going on, but we are in better shape than in a lot of other parts of the world and should be grateful for it. I have no need or desire much to travel abroad either. I know that Steve Earl, he still goes to Europe and does a solo tour - I don't know, I'd rather stay here and keep my energy alive right here at home rather than spread it out all over the planet. We've been asked to go to Japan, to Russia, China, Philippines, all those places, and i'm just not interested in going there, I'd like to stay close to home so I can keep an eye on things.
What was your favorite venue to play?
I liked the Queen Elizabeth theater in Vancouver. I like Royal Albert Hall in England, if we ever go back there again. And I like Carnegie Hall. I like - this answer is - Greek theater. Favorite venue? That's always one that - we've played in so many places, we've played in every state, we've played in just about every city and town in North America, it's hard for me to choose a real good one. The Universal Ampitheater was a good one we used to play in Los Angeles. That's one. And on the East Coast, it would be, we do like, Carnegie, Lincoln Center, we still do Town Hall when we go in there. Lately we have been doing the B.B. King theater when we go to New York. Here in Toronto it's Massey Hall, where I live. So we do a big show here every couple a years, and we have that coming up now at the end of November.
What's your favorite thing (movie, tv show, etc.) that has used one of your songs in the soundtrack?
Well, I know that they had one where they used "Sundown" in the background on some TV show when they were killing somebody, playing it in the background! I can't think of the name of the series, one of those TV movies. I think the one I did for the first Michael Douglas movie, that would be the best one, probably Don Quixote. It was in the first Michael Douglas movie that he was ever in, it was called "Hail Hero." It was about a kid getting ready to go to Vietnam. I had some of that stuff in my program back then, when it was all going on.
Whats a good song many people wouldn't know about?
I think "Darkness at the Break of Noon" by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. Or "All Along the Watchtower." Now that's a great recording of a Bob Dylan song by Jimi Hendrix.
What's it like to spend 50 years in such a changing industry?
I've had to reinvent myself 2 or 3 times already. We even went all-electric onstage at one point, in the 80's. I did an album that was rock-oriented, so we got the electric guitars onstage. The problem was I could never tune the darn things. Those electric guitars, they were too skittish.
I definitely find it rewarding. But what I mean by that, I find it rewarding because it allows us to continue going on doing what we do.
Hello Mr. Lightfoor.
I was wondering which of your musical contemporaries in the 70's do you enjoy the most? Any songs in particular that you really enjoy?
You know, I wouldn't even know where to begin to answer that question, because there must be about 2-3 dozen of them! Perhaps I should mention... okay, one who was really good that nobody ever heard anything about was Bob Gibson. Yup, he was a great artist. That's who I learned to play 12 string guitar from, was from him. He was one of my favorite ones. There was also Phil Oakes, and Bob Dylan, and Arlo Guthrie, Paul Simon, all these people who came out of the era. Boy , there were some of them who were really good - Steve Goodman is another one. My goodness, I remember when he opened for Steve Martin, on an arena tour, the comedian and banjo player, the SNL guy? And Steve opened as a soloist, all by himself, as the opening act for Steve Martin in arenas all across North America. And he wrote all kinds of amazing songs, Stevie I called him. Both those guys, him and Bob Gibson, were from Chicago.
Hey Gordon, what are some of your personal favourite tunes of the year?
I gotta tell you, I spend most of my time listening to talk radio...
Question of the year. Fender or Gibson?
I think if they are talking about my instruments, are you talking about the 2 guitars, I guess, it would be hard for me to comment because both guitars have excellent quality, they both just have a different sound, different tone, they sound completely different. My musical repertoire has diminished somewhat over the past few years. The tone is different. Each guitar is different, but the tone they deliver is totally different, one from the other.